Leading pioneer in physiotherapy awarded Honorary Doctorate

8 April 2016

Associate Professor Tony Masters, Emeritus Professor Roberta Shepherd, Professor Tom Calma AO and Professor Kathy Refshauge
Associate Professor Tony Masters, Emeritus Professor Roberta Shepherd, Professor Tom Calma AO and Professor Kathy Refshauge

The University of Sydney awarded an honorary Doctorate in Health Sciences to Professor Roberta Shepherd, described as a pioneer in the field of Physiotherapy.

"This honour recognises Roberta's many significant contributions to the University, to the physiotherapy profession and the impact of her work on the health of the wider community," said Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Kathy Refshauge.

Professor Roberta Shepherd transformed physiotherapy into a modern evidence-based profession contributing to improved health outcomes for patients.

Both individually and with her long-time collaborator, Associate Professor Janet Carr, Roberta led the scholarly development of the profession, particularly in paediatric and neurological physiotherapy for more than 50 years.

Professor Shepherd graduated with a Diploma of Physiotherapy in 1956 having completed studies in anatomy, physiology, histology and physics at the University of Sydney. Following seven years of clinical practice both in Australia and internationally, Roberta took up a teaching position at the School of Physiotherapy.

In 1977, Roberta was one of the first physiotherapists to become a fellow of the Australian College of Physiotherapists, and took a leading role in the academy for many years.

Being a pioneer in her field, Roberta was constantly confronted by being the first to undertake challenging projects. She was the sole author of the first, and ground-breaking, paediatrics textbook for physiotherapists in 1974 (revised 1980, 1995).

She recognised that leading change in teaching, research and rehabilitation required taking on the challenge of extending her academic qualifications. In 1986 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and chose to study with renowned movement scientist, Professor Ann Gentile at Columbia University in New York. She was awarded three degrees (Master of Arts in 1986; Master of Education in 1988; and Doctor of Education in 1991).

Roberta converted a challenge into an opportunity, and collaborated with Professors Janet Carr and Ann Gentile to produce the landmark text Movement Science - Foundations for Physical Therapy in Rehabilitation published in 1987 (revised in 2000).

Between 1974 and 2014, Roberta and Janet published a total of eight world leading textbooks. These books have had an impact not only on the physiotherapy profession, but more broadly in health. In addition, Roberta has published over 60 articles in journals of many different disciplines as well as numerous book chapters. Roberta and Janet's work is frequently cited in journals and textbooks as the 'gold standard' in rehabilitation.

In October 1991, when the Cumberland College of Health Sciences was established as the Faculty of Health Sciences as part of the University of Sydney, Roberta was appointed as the faculty's first Professor and Foundation Chair of Physiotherapy.

Roberta has educated generations of students and clinicians world-wide and has been an inspirational role model for students and physiotherapists in both clinical practice and in academia.

Today, Roberta continues to mentor research students and early career researchers. She continues to publish, speak at conferences, run workshops and develop new research collaborations.

Roberta's leadership and tireless contributions have been recognised by the physiotherapy profession. In 2014 she and Janet were named as Honoured Members of the Australian Physiotherapy Association for their lifetime's work, the highest honour within the profession.

Roberta was honoured by the Faculty in 2014, with an Alumni Award, and this year, will be presented with the University's Alumni Award for Professional Achievement.